The constant push for Innovation in F1 always needs to be tempered with the requirement for the cars to be reliable.
And it’s also vital in a fast evolving competition like F1 that any development steps the teams bring to the cars do actually provide the boost in performance they are intended to.
In Singapore we saw both sides of this as McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton suffered a gearbox failure and lost what looked like a certain race win, which would have allowed him to close the gap on championship leader Fernando Alonso. It was the fourth retirement on technical grounds this season for the McLaren team.
With things as finely balanced as they are, the win would have brought Hamilton to within 25 points of Alonso with six races to go; instead he is now 52 points behind him.
Alonso is averaging 13.8 points per race this season. If he carries that through to the end of the season, he will have 277 points. Hamilton will therefore need to drop no more than 14 points in the next six races to beat that. He has to rely on a retirement for Alonso.
Meanwhile Ferrari brought new parts to Singapore, including a new rear wing, which failed to improve the car’s performance. The new rear wing was removed from the car after practice on Friday and the two Ferrari drivers used the Hungary specification high downforce wing for qualifying and the race.
Nevertheless, Alonso showed his usual consistency and bagged another 15 points, but it’s worth noting that the Ferrari has also been very reliable and these two factors are making all the difference this year.
“We cannot keep relying on the retirements of our rivals,” said Alonso after the race, suggesting that Ferrari urgently needs to find performance for the final title run-in. He knows full well that Singapore race winner Sebastian Vettel, is now his main championship challenger, only 29 points behind. He needs to score five points more than Alonso at every round in order to win the title. With two competitive McLarens at the front mixing it up, that is eminently possible, but the difference between second and third place is only 3 points, so Vettel really needs some wins or podiums with Alonso among the also rans.
Red Bull, in recent years considered the most innovative of all F1 teams, has struggled this year to make its mark technically, having had some of its innovations refused by the governing body, in areas like engine mapping and brake ducts.
There have been, essentially, four different versions of the car this year, but the one they have now is starting to look like the definitive version. This weekend Red Bull had some exciting new parts, including new front and rear wings and updated rear suspension and these all worked as planned, putting them back on the pace at the front.
However Red Bull, like McLaren, has also had its share of reliability issues this season. Webber has suffered a series of gearbox problems while Sebastian Vettel lost a likely win in Valencia with an alternator failure and lost a possible sixth place in Monza with the same fault.
In the late 1990s F1 moved towards quality control processes imported from industry and these led to a sea change in the reliability of the cars. With most of the competitive cars now finishing every race, technical failures carry a very heavy penalty, as Hamilton knows all too well after Singapore.
The cars have up to 2,000 sensors on them, providing real time data. Problems like Hamilton’s gearbox failure can be seen by the engineers on the telemetry as they develop.
There was nothing the engineers could do to remedy the situation remotely; they were forced to simply watch helplessly as the car headed towards another technical failure.